Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz really seem to have a knack for playing close games.
At this point in the season, it doesn't seem to matter the location, the opponent, or really what's happened in the first, say, 43 minutes of the game; the game just about always comes down to the final moments.
Such was the case again on Friday at Vivint Arena.
Utah had a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, but in the final minute needed some individual heroics to get the win.
Collin Sexton hit a step-back jumper, Jordan Clarkson slid inside for an acrobatic layup, Walker Kessler grabbed a huge offensive board (and, surprisingly, hit two clutch free throws) and Lauri Markkanen finished things off with a block on a shot that would have tied the game up in the final seconds.
And with that, the Jazz survived for a 112-108 win over the Orlando Magic. Utah improved to 22-23 on the season with the win.
The real fun started after the game — or at least the fun comments did. After taking some time to briefly praise his team's resilience down the stretch, Jazz head coach Will Hardy cheekily said delivered the following zinger: "Turnovers were clearly a big story of this game — we had 24 and we had 11 in the fourth quarter — which is alarming considering the jerseys we were wearing tonight."
You probably could have guessed the Jazz were wearing their much-maligned highlighter yellow jerseys on Friday.
"I feel like we should know which guys are on our team and which guys aren't when we wear the yellow," Hardy finished.
That kicked off comedy night at Vivint Arena. Hardy's postgame standup routine has become pretty standard these days; but on Friday, it seemed everyone got the memo.
Considering the night's game had a lot of middle-of-January-against-a-non-playoff-team vibes, the turnovers were part of that, as was the shooting (Utah shot 43% from the field and 31% from the 3-point line), as was the overall atmosphere in the arena — at least outside the final moments. So some levity at the end of the game wasn't the worst thing.
As Markkanen and Kessler walked onto the podium together, Markkanen glanced over at Kessler's gray sweater and said, "What kind of manager isn't wearing my sweatshirt?"
To which Kessler replied, "Hey, I'm not even getting paid, so …"
The duo wasn't done there.
Markkanen had 28 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Jazz, and most of his damage came at the free-throw line. He was just 4-of-11 from the field, but 17-of-21 from the free-throw line.
Markkanen: "I could have made four more than I did."
Kessler, almost dad-like: "Hey, let's just be happy with what we have."
Kessler, after all, isn't one to complain about any made free throws, especially after Friday. With 11.8 seconds left and the Jazz up by one, Kessler stepped to the line for two free throws. Before the shots, he was just 1-for-4 from line as a 55% shooter on the season.
He made of them both, which elicited a smile from the young rookie and definitely showed he was as surprised as many fans were about the result.
"I just said a little quiet prayer to myself and it happened," he said.
Kessler had 13 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks on the night in an outstanding performance. He had the most blocks, and Markkanen had the most free throws. Yet, in a strange twist, it was Kessler who made the game's biggest freebies and Markkanen who had the game-sealing block
After Kessler put the Jazz up by 3 points in the waning seconds, Markkanen blocked Franz Wagner's potential game-tying 3-pointer.
"I taught him everything he knows about blocking shots," Kessler said.
As for blocks involving Markkanen, the rim recorded one, too.
At the close of the first half, Markkanen tried to go up and under the basket for a dunk but caught the rim. He ended up sprawling to the ground and laid there for a while after the buzzer sounded — Talen Horton-Tucker went over to him and pretended to perform CPR on his teammate.
After the game, Ochai Agbaji was asked what he thought his defensive strength was, and that moment creeped up.
"Just being an overall team defender, talking, making sure guys are in the right place," Agbaji said.
"Being really athletic," Markkanen interrupted from his seat next to Agbaji. "I wish I was athletic."
"You're pretty athletic," Agbaji said, reassuringly.
"I got stuffed by the rim tonight," Markkanen dead-panned.
But at least he got the win, and still has a free campaign manager.
"Vote Lauri Markkanen, All-Star 2023," Kessler yelled as he got up from the podium.